This season’s revival performance of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland more than lives up to expectation. In translating a book, replete with wordplay, into a wordless ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon successfully infuses the production with a range of dance styles, conveying the eclectic bunch of unique characters Alice stumbles upon in Wonderland. Sarah Lamb’s Alice and her love interest, Federico Bonelli‘s Knave of Hearts make use of the joyful arabesques and romantic pas de deux in classical ballet. The lovebirds’ gracefulness is starkly contrasted with the contemporary, jaunty tap dancing of the ever-eccentric Mad Hatter and the disembodied Cheshire Cat puppet.
The rich purple, sparkling caterpillar stands out as both a choreographic and costume highlight. Alice’s sweeping gestures are halted in the third act by punchy, Bollywood-like movements. Five dancers, clad in costumes more reminiscent of belly dancing than ballet, dance on to a stage bathed in matching deep purple light emitting an air of mystery. Joby Talbot’s inventive score, chosen by Wheeldon for its ability to suggest character and plot, punctuates the scene with North African-style percussion.
Talbot’s composition has many striking features unique enough to suit Wonderland’s creatures. Whether it’s a violin tuned up a semitone for the ‘highly-strung’ Queen of Hearts or a celesta and ram’s horn trumpet to accompany the White Rabbit, every character has its theme. This allows audience members, even at the back of the theatre, to distinguish between characters and letting them know which creature to watch for onstage – an integral part of any ballet performance.
Watching ballet is exercise for the imagination. Unlike most visual media today, dialogue-free ballet productions leave audiences to find their own path through a story. Perhaps this is why when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland first ran in 2011, it was the first new full-length piece the Royal Ballet Company had made for 16 years. It’s a project for visionaries.
Emotion, tone of voice and narrative must then be clear in the choreography, set design and orchestral music. Visual plot clues in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland range from the White Rabbit’s understated, anxious nose twitches and Alice’s facial expressions of amazement to full screen projections of cards tumbling and an animated Alice plunging into Wonderland. Ballet is all about subtlety contrasting with grandeur, so attention to detail is key not only for show runners but also for audience members.
This ballet version of the Lewis Carroll classic differs slightly from the original, as Wheeldon incorporates the origin story of the book itself.
The ballet begins as Henry Liddell, the Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford, and his wife are hosting a garden party. Their daughter, Alice, is saddened to see her friend Jack, the gardener’s boy, sent away in disgrace. Lewis Carroll, a lecturer in mathematics and friend of the family, consoles Alice by offering to take her photograph. He disappears beneath the camera cloth, emerging as the jittery White Rabbit. When he leaps into his camera-bag and vanishes, Alice follows him, tumbling into the unknown.
The novel, published in 1865, was inspired by a story the real-life Lewis Carroll told Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell – the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church College – which Alice later asked him to write down for her.
Overall, the production is an inspiring and uplifting work of art, filled with colour and perfect for a family outing. The ballet only runs until the 16 January 2015, but it’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Royal Opera House website.